Friday, February 17, 2012

Pat Buchanan, Censorship, & the Culture Wars

A fair bit has been made about MSNBC firing Pat Buchanan after his most recent book was published.  The book included chapters titled: "The End of White America" and "The Death of Christian America".  Apparently, both chapters lamented the increasing percentage of non-white, non-Christian citizens and attempted to link these demographic shifts to an overall national decline.  The book's title questions whether America will even last another 15 years under burdens such as these.

Some conservative commentators have jumped on Buchanan's firing as an example of "political correctness" gone haywire - to the detriment of the free expression of ideas.  But this isn't just a conservative knee jerk reaction to the sacking of a member of their own ranks.  Even some Democrats and liberal commentators have decried Buchanan's fate.  Former New Mexico governor and Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson says Buchanan deserved better.  Peter Fenn, a Democratic media consultant states, "The point is not that Pat hasn't made statements that are insensitive or controversial, we all have.  But should his voice be silenced?  Should it be banned?"

Frankly, I'm baffled.  The conflation of the lack of a regular gig on television news with the silencing and banning of a voice is absurd!  I don't have a recurring role on TV, but I have a blog, and my wife will attest to the fact that I'll hold forth on most any topic out there - free of charge!  Pat Buchanan himself wrote on The Conservative American blog that "after 10 enjoyable years, I am departing, after an incessant clamor from the left that to permit me continued access to the microphones of MSNBC would be an outrage against decency, and dangerous."  The fact that his response to his dismissal from the network was put on a highly trafficked blog and then picked up by national media exposes statements about silenced voices as demagoguery.  

In all likelihood, MSNBC has a good enough read on its audience to be aware that it leans left and that it might either tune out if Buchanan's platform was preserved or tune in more consistently if it imagined that the network was taking a principled stand against a loathsome ideology.

I don't watch MSNBC, so on some level I don't have a horse in this race, but my first reaction was to view it as encouraging that, regardless of the reason, a tiny battle has been won to shift the conversation in our country to more rational ideas.  Until I thought about it a bit more.  Why the hell am I writing this?  Because he got fired.  In all honesty, I didn't even know he had a book out before this happened and I bet a lot of conservatives didn't either - but they do now.  Similarly, MSNBC is an even more appealing information source for liberal audiences now that they've taken a principled stand against a racist screed-slinger.  In the end, this just amounts to another draw in the culture wars - both sides feel righteous indignation and everyone goes home happy and proud of themselves for being right. As a reward for giving us this feeling, Buchanan sells more books and MSNBC can charge more for ads.

This works out great if your goal is to feel good about your side, but what about if your goal is to report the news or improve the lives of your fellow Americans?  Maybe not so much.  

So what does this have to do with Humanism, families, and child rearing?  I've recently joined a discussion group called Parenting Little Heathens on the Atheist Nexus site.  One of the questions posted was titled, "When to start teaching Atheism to your kids?"  (In fact, given the questioner's situation, this was a totally reasonable question.  This response only describes my initial response to the title.)  When I saw the title, my initial reaction was that the question seemed to invest atheism with some of the worst qualities of religion: the goal of being us vs. being them and the focus on conclusions rather than process.  I think the better question is "When to start teaching critical thinking to your kids?"  And the answer is always, "Immediately." 

To focus on teaching atheism, or any other end result of a line of inquiry, is really to allow oneself and one's children to be sucked in to the same attitudes and patterns that have created the ceaseless cycle of culture wars and automatic outrage that demagogues like Buchanan and media conglomerates like MSNBC foster.  This, in turn gives over control of our thoughts and emotions to the best manipulator when we'd rather use reason and logic to keep control of our own thoughts and emotions.

I'm not suggesting that we ought never to join a group.  We're social creatures and joining is what we do best.  Without the drive to pick sides and form a group, we wouldn't last a minute.  But for my kids and myself, I hope that we do so thoughtfully, critically, & carefully.  So my ultimate goal as a parent isn't to teach my kids atheism as a philosophy.  Rather, I want to teach them 1) how to use their reason to identify values that will serve them and their fellow humans well, and 2) how to think critically about the groups that support those values.  Of course, I think that means they'll most likely decide that people who style themselves as having a special communication line with the all-powerful creator of the universe are full of shit, because that's what I've concluded.  But by teaching the process, rather than the ends, I hope to give them the tools to find the answers to questions that range from politics to religion to what to eat to who to associate with all on their own.  If I do a good job of that then they'll learn to dismiss whatever hateful rhetoric their generation's version of Pat Buchanan spews, regardless of whether some news outlet thinks he might make some money for their shareholders.

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